Purity and Passion? Dissecting March Madness

By: Chris Dagonas

March MadnessTM is the unofficial name of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) men’s basketball tournament. It includes 68 teams, playing up to 6 games in just over 2 weeks. This year’s March MadnessTM tournament kicks off on Thursday morning, and once again the sports world will turn its attention to the “innocence” and “passion” of NCAA college athletes.

Did I just use quotes around the two fundamental advertising principles of the NCAA tournament? I did.

The NCAA certainly tries to sell its athletes, its teams, and by extension, its major tournaments, as the home of pure and innocent athletic competition. Take a look at one of their ads for a past March MadnessTM tournament. That must be why the NCAA makes so little profit from televising their marquee athletic event. What’s that you say? They make an outrageous profit televising it? Commercial partnerships? The official taco of March MadnessTM? My illusions have been shattered.

I just entered an online bracket pool for a certain fantasy sports website, wherein I have predicted the outcomes of all the upcoming games of this “innocent” tournament. While I was filling out the Western bracket, I was suddenly overcome with the knowledge that the 2014 Kia Forte is a slam-dunk. Weird, isn’t it? I mean, it would seem like an American college basketball tournament and a Korean car manufacturer are worlds apart. And yet, there they were, together on my computer screen. You think the NCAA just believes so much in Kia’s new Forte, that they advertised it (in two separate ads) out of the goodness of their hearts? Yeah, that must be it.

Buy a KIA Forte. That’s more subtle than TWO ads.

Oh, and I guess the NCAA was so pleased with CBS’ coverage of the last State of the Union address that they decided to allow them to broadcast the tournament. Very wholesome. Maybe CBS helped the NCAA paint their picket fence, so the NCAA owed CBS a favour. I’m sure, whatever the case, it was all very pure and innocent, and had nothing to do with million-dollar broadcasting deals.

According to ESPN, this year’s big three sponsors are Capital One, Coca-Cola, and AT&T. Don’t those just epitomize traditional, middle-America values?

The only thing innocent about this tournament is the fan who still believes that the players and coaches get fair treatment from the colleges they represent. At least the coaches receive salaries. The players, meanwhile, are often living in shoddy dorms, missing classes to practice, and are not allowed to receive any income, even though the NCAA makes millions based on their performances.

I don’t mean to paint the athletes as victims in this. This is strictly a business transaction. A quid-pro-quo. Which brings us to the second half of the NCAA myth: Passion.

The story goes that collegiate athletes don’t play for big money contracts or lucrative endorsements, but for the pure love and joy of the game. An old sporting cliché goes “You play for the name on the front of the jersey, not for the one on the back.” Adidas famously simplified this to “We Not Me” in an ad campaign a few years back. Since NCAA athletes are unpaid, they are presumably playing their hearts out for their beloved college institutions.

Excuse my skepticism. With NBA teams expanding their rosters to 15 players from 12 in the 1980s, and the increasing appeal of European basketball leagues, basketball players are thinking of contracts before they even reach high school. As the NBA grows in stature, contracts and endorsements will only grow as well, and a college athlete will continue to care more about the name on the back of the jersey than the name on the front.

Just after LeBron James entered the league in 2003, NBA commissioner David Stern instituted the 20 year age limit, or “one-and-done” rule, in the NBA, meaning that superstar high school players like James, and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett before him, had to spend a year outside of high school before entering the NBA. So, a young kid named Kevin Durant (uh, perhaps you’ve heard of him?) had to attend the University of Texas for a year before immediately bolting to the NBA. Can you blame him? If someone told me that I could become a teacher [Ed. Note: Chris’ day job] after one year of university, I would have left early too. What loyalty could a guy like Durant possibly have to a university that he barely attended, and only did so out of necessity?

Kevin Durant, the quintessential student athlete.

Kevin Durant, already thinking about his first big contract.

Many players are more interested in finishing their one season healthy and with impressive stats, than actually winning a national championship. They’re happy to do their time, escape in April, and be ready for the NBA draft in July.

There are exceptions to this cynical view, of course.  Most colleges feature seniors who fill important roles; the big man defender, the 3-point specialist, etc.  These guys are usually not talented enough to carve out a career in any level of professional basketball. Most often, a job awaits them in sports management, broadcasting, coaching, or latching on to an already successful business run by a “booster”.[i]  Their days of university basketball are the greatest athletic achievement they can hope for, and they treat it as such. These are usually the guys you see in the documentaries and commercials, blood on the jersey, diving across the floor to save a loose ball.  They represent the majority of NCAA athletes, but they are not the ones that make the fans tune in and generate the big advertising revenues.

Despite everything I just said, I still love this college basketball commercial. So pumped, I would LITERALLY commit a homicide for this coach.

Not literally.

While I will inevitably tune in to as many games as I can, I am not going in naively.  I know that what I am watching is not the pure, passionate display I am being sold. Instead, it is more like an equivalent to minor league baseball, a rough, sometimes exciting, often boring (especially in the early rounds), march towards a final featuring two big-money schools with one-and-done recruits. Maybe not pure, innocent, and passionate, but still worth a look.

And much more than that.

[i] A quick note on the booster: Boosters are wealthy supporters of their alma maters, who try anything within the rules (and outside them) to make their schools win.  They buy recruits cars and houses, they offer money to single moms from the projects, and they take 17 year olds to strip clubs and college parties to lure them to choose their school.  Slimy, shady, immoral, and against NCAA rules, yet it happens at every one of the schools you’ll be watching this month.

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